Migrant, Refugee, Asylum Seeker; What’s in a Label? By Zula Tesfai, Youth Ambassador

19 September 2016

Europe is seeing the largest movement of migrants since World War II. Consequently immigration is dominating media headlines, public debates and was at the core of the referendum campaign. The question of how the country approaches immigration after Brexit is likely to be one of the most complicated aspects of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.  The unfortunate result of this media attention has been confusion about asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants, and their individual challenges.

In order to understand the challenges each group faces, it is necessary to define different types of migration.

The most common term used to describe the current movement of migrants towards Europe is refugeesThe 1951 Refugee Convention has outlined the basic characteristics to meet the criteria for refugee status as:

  1. To be outside of one’s country of origin or former habitual residence,
  2. To be unable or unwilling to return to that country because of “well-founded fear of being persecuted”, and
  3. The feared persecution is based on one of these grounds: Race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

Another term that gives rise to much confusion and is largely conflated and contrasted with refugees is asylum seeker. Whereas asylum seeker refers merely to a person who has applied for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is an asylum seeker whose application has been successful.

A failed asylum application can lead to an irregular migration status. In 2015 out of the 38,000 asylum applications in the UK 63% were rejected in the initial decision. Unsuccessful asylum seekers in the UK have to pay personally for their transportation back home. Besides possible risks of persecution in their country of origin, a return home can be associated with high psychological and financial costs. Migrants have been known to pay up to £13,500 for smugglers to arrange their journey to the destination country. As a result, many migrants continue to stay in the host country or move to another European country as irregular migrants after a failed asylum application.

Irregular migrants are immigrants who are outside of the protection of the law and as such face particular vulnerability. They remain without documentation and do not – for obvious reasons – speak out about their circumstances. Because of their status, irregular migrants are often vulnerable to human trafficking and labour exploitation. They may be subject to working in sweatshops, sex work, or begging in order to pay their debts to smugglers and they depend heavily on informal networks. Furthermore, it is in the nature of illegality that these migrants are excluded from health, welfare and social services.

Finally, there are economic migrants, who are defined as people who have left their country to find employment and better their standard of living. “Economic migrant” is not a legal term and it refers to a wide array of people. For example, a German manager hired by the Barclays Bank can be categorised as an economic migrant, as can a Nigerian man crossing the Mediterranean Sea to find work in Europe.

These labels are merely practical terms to categorise migrants and to easily identify which are in need of international protection from persecution. In reality, these labels are blurred and they may not reflect the everyday challenges these people face. For example, many of those who are forced to cross borders as a result of climate change, may not be entitled to claim refugee status. Nevertheless, they have been forced to migrate for survival and are in need of international protection.  A migrant worker can become a victim of trafficking or a person moving to improve his or her economic standard of living may be from a warn-torn country. A woman fleeing the drought in her country may be forced to cross the border for aid. Are these people economic or forced migrants? Can they ask for asylum in a host country? It is not possible to encompass the complexity of their lives through the simple labels of economic migrant or refugee.

Labelling further influences our perception of migrants as “deserving” and “undeserving” through an intrinsic ranking system. Take for instance a young British man moving to Thailand for work opportunities. He will be generally referred to as an expat rather than economic migrant; the former label being less stigmatised. Labelling migrants is political in nature. By labelling certain people as bogus asylum seekers or refugees, a distinction can be established between “them” and “us”. This hierarchy of labels dictates the level of hospitality granted to each category of migrant, but also fuels fear of unknown strangers and subsequent abuse. While these labels are necessary for legal purposes, it is important that they are not the only way that we understand the stories of the people who hold them.


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